Balotelli and Italy's racism debate
Will they stop the match? In the build-up to one of the biggest games of the Italian season, that is the question. As we prepare for this weekend's Derby D'Italia in Turin between Juventus and Inter Milan, one player has dominated the countdown.
Through no fault of his own, Inter's talented 19-year-old striker Mario Balotelli finds himself in the eye of the storm. A black player born to a Ghanaian couple living in Palermo but later adopted at the age of three by the Balotelli family from near Brescia, Balotelli has repeatedly been the object of abuse from opposing fans, abuse that seems both racist and unacceptable.
In the eye of the storm
The first serious incident involving him came last April when Juventus were forced to play a Serie A game behind closed doors by way of punishment for their fans' racist chants at Balotelli during Juventus v Inter Milan in Turin. It seems that the better Balotelli plays, the more he annoys some opposing fans.
At the time, he showed a deal of common sense, dismissing the chants and commenting afterwards: "I'm more Italian than those idiots".
In late November, however, the Balotelli problem came back to haunt us. On one remarkable weekend, the young Inter striker managed to attract ugly fan chants at two different matches being played hundreds of kilometres apart. At both Inter's away game with Bologna and, even more perversely, during Juve's home game with Udinese, he was once more the object of sporting, if not racist abuse.
"Se saltelli/Muore Balotelli" (literally, if you jump up and down, then Balotelli dies)
Again, Juventus picked up a fine - this time a rather derisory 20,000 euro. Any hope that the small minority of Juventus fans responsible for the chants might have learned their lesson seemed to go out the window when Juventus travelled to Bordeaux for their next game, a mid-week Champions League tie which saw the Old Lady roundly beaten 2-0. As the teams warmed up prior to that game, the "saltelli/Balotelli" chant started up again.
This time, Juventus icon, goalkeeper Gigi Buffon opted to intervene, going across to the thousand or so Juventus away fans and appealing to them to give it up. Buffon's intervention had the desired effect, with the fans resorting to a more traditional anti-Inter chant and dropping the Balotelli one.
Will the game end?
In the build-up to this first league clash of the season between these two great rivals, there has been a lot of talk about what will happen if the Juventus fans start shouting abuse again at Balotelli. Men like the Inter owner, Massimo Moratti, and the head of the Italian Players Association, Sergio Campana, have called on the match to be abandoned if the chants start up again. Under current regulations, either the match referee or the senior police person at the ground can order a game to be suspended in the event "not only of the exposition of racist banners but also in the presence of chants that express ethnic, racial or religious intolerance" (taken from a notification last May to local police chiefs by the Head of the Italian Police force, Antonio Manganelli).
Experienced players like Livorno striker Cristiano Lucarelli and black AC Milan midfielder, Dutchman Clarence Seedorf, have argued that the issue has been blown out of proportion. Both men suggest that the chants are not racist but merely the expression of football fan rivalry. Lucarelli, who is Italian and white, says he has been abused for 15 years in Italy because of his well-known leftist political sympathies.
Not a racist country, says Seedorf
Seedorf says that Italy "is not a racist country", adding that Balotelli could help himself and others by avoiding a tendency to provocative gestures (He stuck his tongue out at the Juventus fans in Turin last April, for example).
All of which is hardly the idea preparation for what should be one of the big nights of the Italian season. As for ourselves, we have our doubts about the willingness of players and teams to walk off the pitch. Remember, we did have a precedent not that long ago, back in November 2005.
That was the day when then 22-year-old Ivory Coast and Messina defender Marco Zoro picked up the ball during a home game against Inter. Outraged by the systematic racist abuse directed at him by a small number of Inter fans, Zoro stopped the game and then went across to the referee's assistant to demand that the game be stopped, explaining afterwards.
"It's bad enough that I have to put up with fans making monkey noises and calling me a black shit every time Messina play away from home but it's never happened to me before that I was systematically insulted at my home ground. That's just too much. For a minute or too, that's all I could think of. We've got to stop this game, it's really important that we send a strong message to these people otherwise this shameful behaviour will never end..."
Lip service to combating racism
In the end, of course, it is arguable that no such "strong message" was sent because, much encouraged by two black Inter players, Brazilian Adriano and Nigerian Obefemi Martins, Zoro agreed to play on. In crude realpolitik terms, the Inter players did not want a match that they were winning 2-0 to be abandoned, with the victory awarded to Messina at a later Disciplinary Hearing.
Until we have proof to the contrary, the suspicion remains that Italian football pays only lip service to the issue of combating racism in football, without really understanding or wanting to understand the seriousness of the problem.
Remember, too, that in recent years, there have been many other incidents - in 1996 Verona fans burned a dummy in protest at the club's intention of hiring a black player; in 1998 Lazio fans displayed a banner reading "Auschwitz is Your Home" during a 1998 Rome derby; in October 2000, Arsenal's Frenchman Vieira complained about racist abuse from Lazio defender, Serb Sinisa Mihajlovic, in a much publicized incident during a Champions League tie; in 2001 Treviso fans booed when Nigerian Omolade came on a substitute for their own team (in this case, the Treviso players responded by painting their faces black for their next home game).
An uneasy thought remains. What exactly will it take for Italian football to deal with the racism issue seriously? Some sort of racist-inspired tragedy? Let us hope not.
Perhaps, if the players walked off the pitch, however, the point might be made. Perhaps Zoro was absolutely right.
About the Author
Paddy Agnew has lived and worked as a journalist in Rome since 1986. Since 1992, he has been Rome correspondent for the Irish Times, and for 15 years he worked as a soccer commentator for Italian state broadcaster RAI. He is a regular contributor to the BBC World Service radio, Irish broadcaster RTE, London-based TalkSport and many other radio stations, and he is the Italian correspondent for the monthly magazine, World Soccer. Agnew is also the author of "Forza Italia, A Journey In Search Of Italy and Its Football" (Ebury Press, 2006).